Streetwise Professor

April 1, 2008

A Moving Voice, But is the Message Practical in Today’s Russia?

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:10 am

Russia Profile does its readers a great service by running regular commentary by Alexander Arkhangelsky. A dear Russian friend who had the fortune to dine with him one evening says “He cares!” And so he does, sincerely and passionately, about a humane future for Russia–a vision quite different from that propounded by most Russian politicians and members of the Russian political classes, and a good part of the Russian intelligensia (at least those whose writings are readily available to non-Russian speakers).

Arkhangelsky’s writing resonates with a classical liberal, a Hayekian, or a Burkean Conservative, or somebody like yours truly who combines elements of all three. He does not see Russia’s redemption in power verticals, or a strong, centralized authoritarian state. Indeed, he views these as the inimical to Russian progress and development. Instead of singing the praises of Sovereign Democracy (an oxymoron if there ever was one), Arkhangelsky desires that individual Russians claim a zone of personal sovereignty. He believes that self-organizing “little platoons” (as Burke phrased it) of autonomous citizens are best able to address Russia’s pressing social and economic problems.

His latest article from today’s Russia Profile is a case in point. This article also illustrates that Arkhangelsky understands the essential role of private property in securing that zone of personal sovereignty from the grasping hands of the state. (Richard Pipes and Tom Bethell have good books on the subject.) I would that more Americans and Europeans understood this as well as he.

I am deeply sympathetic to Arkhangelsky’s beliefs, but, sadly, feel that his vision is more than a little romantic and impractical at the present juncture of Russian history. He is absolutely right to assert that personal liberty can arise only from below, and is never “given” from above. He is equally correct that central power is inimical to the development of a self-reliant, free people; and that the more expansive and intrusive the central power, the more circumscribed is personal liberty and the scope for human development.

But that very message is highly subversive in any authoritarian political culture. Because of that subversive potential, the cabals of kleptocratic local officials and those at the very upper reaches of the power vertical whom Arkhangelsky furiously and truthfully skewers in his columns have every incentive to conspire to throttle a nascent movement for personal liberty in the crib. Indeed, that is just what we see in Russia today. At both the national and local levels, the authorities ruthlessly atomize society; induce apathy; and permit only that collective action which supports, rather than challenges, the existing power structures. In one article Arkhangelsky says that the only thing that the Russian people should demand is that freedom and autonomy be granted at the local level–but that is the last thing that the power structures are willing to give, and indeed, have worked assiduously over the last 8 years to deny. (Witness the elimination of elections for governors, and the persecution of NGOs and Russian civil society organizations, such as the Mothers of Beslan.)

So, indeed, as Arkhangelsky says, personal liberty and individual autonomy can only come from below, but history teaches that some counterpoise of forces–nobles vs. royalty, the bourgeoisie vs. the nobles, etc.–is necessary to stymie the central power and prevent it from dominating the people and crushing freedom. The tragedy of Russian history is that this counterpoise has been almost entirely absent. The reasons for this would require many speculative posts to explore, but its fundamental truth is pretty apparent. And it is pretty apparent too that this counterpoise is almost completely lacking today. As a result, I fear that Arkhangelsky’s crusade is likely to be a futile one.

I sense that Arkhangelsky understands that his is a doubtful cause. This is all the more reason to admire his outspoken courage. And although his voice is not a sufficient condition for liberty to triumph over authority in Russia, it is no doubt a necessary one. For freedom to prevail, someone must speak out. Although his voice may largely fall on deaf ears now, in the future–and hopefully, the not too distant one–when it becomes more apparent that the current Russian path leads to a barren end, people will remember what he said; endeavor to form their little platoons; and venture to create a more humane civil society in which people have the autonomy to achieve more fully their human potential.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress